Back to Industry News List >>

Sep 29, 2020

Wineries that can’t charge for tastings are struggling to profit from tourism, says an industry body calling for law changes. Maia Hart investigates.

In the heart of Marlborough’s wine country Sugar Loaf Wines is a minnow and it prides itself on that. The winery produces small batches of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay and its staff are hands-on. They do a bit of everything, including hosting tourists – sometimes for free.

“We don't have dedicated (hospitality) staff, we just have someone from the winemaking team that do our tastings,” managing director and founder Kate Acland says. “We haven’t put a lot of capital into the tasting room. We run it very much as a genuine experience for people that are interested.”

Its tasting room was open during the peak season, from November through to April, but Acland says “at best” it broke even as it was unable to charge visitors for tastings. This is because it doesn’t have an on-licence.

While cellar doors and tasting rooms with on-licences can charge for wine samples, those with an off-licence, by law, must let customers swill for free. The difference is, those with an on-licence must sell food. Under the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act the holder of an on-licence must provide a “reasonable” amount of food available, at reasonable prices and within a reasonable time of being ordered.

Licences are administered by local councils.

For Acland, an on-licence is “costly and complicated, and we would need to upgrade our facilities.” It wouldn’t be worth it for the amount of tastings it does, and it doesn’t have the infrastructure. But, “we would love the opportunity to be able to charge, even just $1 or $2 to be able to offset that cost of running the tasting room.”

Wineries can sell bottles of wine, but there was no guarantee tasters would buy.

New Zealand Winegrowers has been working with officials since 2018 to seek “technical improvements” to the act to support wine tourism.

New Zealand Winegrowers advocacy general manager Jeffrey Clarke says tourism businesses, such as wine tours, were profiting off the cellar door experience.

“You wouldn’t expect to go into a restaurant and sample their food before deciding to dine there, so we don’t think that wine should be provided free of charge,” Clarke says.

“Every bottle they [wineries] open they’re providing a service. They tell them [customers] about the wine, and they have to support the salaries of the staff providing it. In many cases they [tourists] expect to pay for it because they appreciate what they're getting, other than if they are buying a bottle of wine they can’t pay for the service.”

In June, Justice Minister Andrew Little informed New Zealand Winegrowers any changes to the act would have to wait until Labour’s next term – if it was elected.

Clarke says this is disappointing as they were hoping for change, in order to support small to medium wineries in their Covid-19 recovery.

Sugar Loaf Wines winemaker Cullen Neal says the pandemic had created uncertainty around visitor numbers.

“We’re going to open a lot of wine, and we might get five or six people a day. Those bottles of wine probably last three days. So if we could actually charge, it would at least pay for the wine that we are opening.

“Fundamentally you could just go around Marlborough for a couple of hours and you could actually get fairly drunk and have a fairly good time without spending any money.”

Domain Road Vineyard owner Graeme Crosbie has been operating a cellar door from his Bannockburn winery since 2012 and says a lot of people come for a free taste.

"It would be nice to be able to charge for that."

It was mostly New Zealanders visiting now, but they usually bought wine. Tourists could be reluctant to carry bottles but wanted to hear the winery’s story.

It was not viable to get an on-licence by opening a kitchen.

"We would need...a whole other layer of staff and facilities just so we can charge $10 for wine tasting."

He had made fruitless enquiries with the Central Otago District Council.

It was frustrating that cellar doors were not taken into account when licensing laws were written. A three-tier system operated in Australia that had different rules to allow cellar doors to charge, he said.

Blenheim’s FROMM winery moved to an on-licence about three years ago so that it could charge for tastings, and allow them to offer more expensive wine.

“The change was a little bit difficult, to tell the people in the cellar door that yes, we have to prepare food,” says general manager Stephan Walliser. “Now days, it’s absolutely not a problem, and I have to say we make some profit out of the food.”

Source:  Stuff Maia Hart